Fifth House Ensemble at MCA Stage, Edlis Neeson Theater | Concert preview
A high-altitude skydive inspires the chamber music trilogy “Caught: The Wide Open.”
In 1960, pilot Joseph Kittinger became an overnight hero as he ascended 102,800 feet in a high-altitude balloon and hurtled back down to Earth in 13 minutes and 45 seconds, setting four world records (for duration, his 4-minute, 36-second free-fall beats even Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s higher-altitude 2012 drop, made famous on the Internet). This jump, known as Project Excelsior, became the driving inspiration for local contemporary-music champion Fifth House Ensemble, whose chamber music trilogy, “Caught: The Wide Open,” explores the human urge to push limits as far as possible.
NYC-based composer Caleb Burhans’s minimalist new work Excelsior draws directly on Kittinger’s skydive. “Caleb’s expanded that freefall into a 30-minute experience,” says 5HE flutist and cofounder Melissa Snoza. “Everything widens out and slows down. When you’re falling out of a plane, four minutes can feel like five hours. That’s partly at play here—a stretched perception of time.”
The middle portion of this vibrant program features Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9. “Shostakovich was writing subversively for an authority that he didn’t necessarily subscribe to,” says Snoza of the composer’s political struggles during the Stalin era. “He definitely tested his limits.” In keeping with 5HE’s penchant for multimedia presentations, cartoons sketched by local illustrator Adam Fotos will accompany the rarely performed piece. “Adam tells a fantastical story of Shostakovich falling into his piano and into a different world,” Snoza says with a chuckle. “It’s adorable. He becomes a little comic-book guy with huge glasses and no eyeballs!”
The concert opens with avant-garde composer John Zorn’s The Temptations of St. Anthony, inspired by the 3rd-century desert hermit and penned especially for Fifth House. “In John’s piece, the piano is St. Anthony and the rest of the ensemble represents various demons in the desert,” explains Snoza. “There are so many wildly fantastic textures in the music. You can really picture someone tickling your brain and pulling you over to the dark side.”